The Form in Faith Formation

April 6, 2017


I am a high school religion teacher.  Based on my experience in the classroom, most of my students generally know the contents of the Faith. However, it is the particularities that escape them. This ends up getting in the way of their progress in the appreciating and understanding the Faith, and it takes much effort and training to help the students not tend in a faulty, limited direction. If the students are not first given the form (i.e. Revelation) so as to experience it in all its beauty, there will be no true formation. God does not save us through generalities, but in a densely textured personal, and therefore particular, way. Rather than debate catechetical methodology, let me give you a weightlifting analogy to help you better understand how I see my role as a catechist.

 For years I have been lifting weights, but only in the past couple years has my focus in the gym shifted from an ad hoc, often haphazard approach, to an intentional, systematic method. I knew the generalities of weight training, but ignored the particulars. Dissatisfied with my progress, I lamented my predicament to my friend and mentor, Fr. Steve Grunow, (whose prodigious feats of strength are known to the devotees of Bishop Barron’s Word on Fire). Father Steve recommended to me that I consult with his godson, Ben Wellenbach, who is an accomplished strength and conditioning coach. Ben charged his assistant Jason with teaching me how precisely to lift weights. In my pride, I thought my experience made me somewhat of an expert, I discovered that I was truly a novice, held back by the generalities that I assumed were everything that I need to know in order to excel in the gym. I soon discovered that my general knowledge of weightlifting had to give way to particulars and now the emphasis was now on the particularities of specific technique, of form. I knew something about weightlifting, but it turned out, it really wasn’t enough to accomplish all that much.

Ben showed me the proper form of each exercise and in doing so I also learned how poor my own form was. I was humbled in the experience, but within that humility, came an experience of transformation and new and quite frankly, unexpected growth. Within a couple months I was lifting weights beyond what I had imagined I was capable of.

Paying attention to my form, I could see all my weaknesses, especially in my front squat. Since my legs and core were not strong, I developed a tendency to compensate for my weakness by kicking in my right knee. My front squat was lousy, preventing potential gains. Despite my awareness of this tendency, I kept doing it. It made things seem easier and I figured I was accomplishing the general idea of the movement. But by ignoring the particular I was subverting myself. They quickly saw that I had poor flexibility that was causing me to jerk in my knee. To correct this, I had to do a routine of flexibility exercises and stretches. It took time, and I hated doing them. However, it paid off because I eventually was able to do the front squat properly. Now that I had correct form, I was able master the movement, but also enjoy the result of lifting ever increasing amounts of weight.  This exhilarating experience encouraged me to continue my painstaking focus on the particulars of weightlifting.

Similarly, my goal as a religion teacher is to help my students better know Jesus Christ in the splendor of his form. My job is not simply to facilitate a conversation with my students about whatever opinion it is they believe about Jesus but to help them see and understand the form of Christ- in the reality of the totality of his Incarnation and how that revelation continues in their own lives as a way of life lived in communion with the Church.

To do this, every class I present to the students in the foundational teachings of the Church about Christ, not merely as propositions to be learned, but as particularities which if understood and appreciated, reveal the totality of Christ’s unique revelation. This form cannot be apprehended as a generality, or even less so as an opinion, but manifests itself in the peculiar, particularity of God who accepts a human nature and lives a real, human life.

This is so that when in seeking the form, they to come to better know Jesus Christ, the world, and themselves they have his Revelation to illumine the way.

I am not advocating a one-sided doctrinal approach, a mere rote memorization of content, but I believe that doctrine should be employed generously in catechesis, particularly the Church’s rich dogmatic language about Christ. These doctrines serve as an introduction to Christ, perfecting the generalities with an appreciation of particularities. This helps the other aspects of faith development (e.g. experience and praxis) as they can take shape in relation to the proper form- the form of Christ.

In On The Way to Jesus Christ, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger has an excellent essay entitled, “Wounded By the Arrow of Beauty”, that supports my approach. Ratzinger cites Byzantine theologian Nicholas Cabasilas who says we need two forms of knowledge when coming to know Christ. Cabasilas says, “As long as we have not tasted an essence, therefore, we do not love the thing to the extent that it is a worthy object of love.” I want my students to fall in love with Christ and desire total union with Him, but this will only happen through attentiveness to the form of Christ. Christ is the one we must learn to see.

In order to have good formation, you need to be clear on the form. I made little progress in the gym without attentiveness to form. The same logic applies to the catechesis and faith formation.